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Apartheid receipts and the irrelevance of white heroism


In 2 000 Seasons, author Ayi Kwei Armah suggests that “it is only our drugged weariness, unjustified and unjustifiable, that keeps us bound to the present”.

A question I have often returned to that he poses in this book is: For whose entertainment shall we sing our agony?

The reports and interventions regarding Eugene de Kock popping up at the Franschhoek Literary Festival have continued to pile up, and somewhere among the outrage and tears, I can imagine author Thando Mgqolozana saying, “I told you so,” with a smirk.

After Mgqolozana used the festival to repeat the call he made at Time of the Writer festival last year, to opt out of the “colonial white literary system”, I imagine that it is hard for a black writer to attend the Frasnchhoek do without an acute sense of introspection about their politics.

For me, most interesting about the reports I have read about Franschhoek is not that  De Kock was asked to leave, but how he was strutting around for a good while before being detected. I use detected in jest, for in earnest, De Kock was right at home, among his people. In the majority were people he had fought so valiantly to protect, the same ones who never raise their hands when the receipts for apartheid-earned privileges are being sought. They do not have to, I guess, for their largesse is self-evident.

But this article is not about De Kock and his feelings of security under the cloak of whiteness. It is about what this means for the black writer.

Accepting or refusing an invitation to Franschhoek is the easy part. I imagine that black writers have their various justifications for going there. Some of these might be masochistic: to experience the whip that lashes your brother’s back for yourself, or, as one writer put it to me, purely about politics of the stomach.

On the other hand, refusing to go may allow the objecting writers a chance to pay lip service to a clarion call and a period of therapeutic grandstanding.

Even if authors and readers might have misgivings about Mgqolozana’s opting out statement (let’s face it, nobody wants to be called out like that), or speculate about the agenda it serves ad nauseam, it suggests a literary point of no return.

That he was able to parlay that into the role of coprogramming a festival (Time of the Writer 2016), suggests this point of no return now has a physical reference.

For those who witnessed it, Time of the Writer 2016 was a brave and exciting initiative, one of the few times I have felt optimism about being black in South Africa. To see writers step out of their role as all-knowing sages, and deal with the discomforts of privilege and language snobbery, provided hope and a clear sense of what decolonisation means beyond rhetoric.

I can imagine that those who were willing to dream anew can only be strengthened by that experiment.

But the festival was also polarising in the sense that, for the most part, white people shunned it. It was to be expected because, for the most part, it is black people who have been committed to the humiliating deed of overcompensating for the sake of reconciliation. But the truth is there is nothing to reconcile.

In 2015, when Franschhoek was called out, indignant white people wrote in its defence. “The festival was not created just to titillate and challenge people (of any race) with lively discussions: it was established also to improve the literacy of children in the Franschhoek Valley and to foster in them a love of books and literature,” wrote Alexander Matthews. “The proceeds of the festival go to a library fund that has given thousands of books (in isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English) to schools and creches in the valley.”

Most injustices justify their existence through philanthropy. But what is disturbing to me is that this quote was repeated almost verbatim by a black writer who explained his presence at the festival.

So, while calling out Lauren Beukes might seem warranted – for we all know how easily whiteness can replicate its own valour – in reality, white people civilising each other are irrelevant to a black agenda. Paying this act any attention is to service it. It stops short of the necessary work of rolling up sleeves and getting dirty in the name of building something new.

A failure to do this means, with each successive festival in the mould of Franschhoek, the post-mortems lead to blacker-than-thou posturing, which does not advance a progressive cause.

The fact that some black writers and lovers of literature have moved on to creating their own alternatives (such as the recently held Rutanang Book Fair and initiatives such as Long Story Short) and grapple with how to make their work more available to black audiences means there is no time like now for black readers and writers to take a stand.

Itumeleng Thekiso, a marketing manager of Rutanang, says, although publishers left happy that books were sold at the fair, there were not enough people attending the discussions, suggesting that more black bibliophiles still need to enjoy the added effort of stepping out of their comfort zones to support black discussion.

This might minimise the chances of bumping into De Kock and singling him and other do-gooders for the complicity of entire generations.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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